The question of how our conception of the world could differ so widely from the disclosed nature of the world will with perfect equanimity be relinquished to the physiology and history of the evolution of organisms and concepts.(Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human 16).
In an interview conducted by the Italian literary journal Alfabeta in April of 1987,1 Niklas Luhmann was asked if sociology, in particular its systems-theoretical variant, could replace the privileged position that art, religion, philosophy, and politics had lost, and provide an Archimedean point from which to describe society as a whole. Luhmann responded that today it is no longer possible to imagine such an outside position for the observation of the whole, sociology being no exception. In its description of society, contemporary sociology can merely offer to reflect its own descriptions as being part of what they describe, and “reflect its own refusal to adopt an ontological, subject-transcendental or epistemologically privileged position” (Archimedes 165-6).2 In the interview, Luhmann suggests that the forfeiting of an Archimedean viewpoint is what distinguishes his sociological theory from the Old-European tradition. In the latter, we are “always dealing with descriptions from an outside, for example, through the mediation of a subject. Traditional logic or traditional ontology always presupposed an external observer who was in the position to distinguish between false and correct, that is, who could apply a bivalent logic in its observations” (164). Alternatively, Luhmann’s adaptation of systems theory is an attempt to construct an epistemology that would not assume such an “outside” position for its observations, but includes “the observer and observational instruments” in its observation. Simply put, systems theory acknowledges what the assumption of an Archimedean point hides—namely that what one observes is what it is only by virtue of how it is being observed.
Not restricting observation to attentive sensual perception, but defining it more broadly as any operation that draws a distinction and indicates one of its sides, Luhmann reads the spatial distinction between [End Page 88] inside and outside itself as an observational instrument, as an arbitrary distinction which, by separating the observer from what is being observed, provides the basic structure for a cosmology characterized by ontological stability and logical bivalency. In comparison, the inclusion of the observer produces instability on various levels. First, its world is utterly heterogeneous, since it is constituted ever differently again by different observations. Given these conditions, systems theory aims to explain how any order and (temporary) stabilities are possible to begin with. Second, it will have to regard observations, including its own, as inherently contingent (in the Aristotelian sense of possible, but not necessary) since they no longer can rely on an independently existing outside to inform, confirm, or privilege certain observations over others. Luhmann understands contingency as “modernity’s defining attribute” (Observations 44) or, in the German original, as its “Eigenwert,” a cybernetic term that indicates that contingency is both a characteristic and product of modernity’s observation practices. Third, the supposition of an “outside” predicates a particular representational relationship between observer and the world that is being observed—what in philosophy may be associated with Thomas Aquinas’s definition of truth as an adaequatio intellectus et rei, and what Luhmann defines more broadly (not restricting it to minds) as the assumption of a “structural isomorphy between the outer world and cognition or knowledge.”3 Including the observer instead suggests that any observation is necessarily a falsification of the world it observes, because viewed from within, the structure of observation requires that the world make itself different from itself to observe itself.4 In the case of sociology, Luhmann acknowledges for his magnum opus, The Theory of Society [Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft], that any description of society is itself part of society and therefore changes what it describes by virtue of describing it.5
Despite Luhmann’s eagerness to separate his theoretical stance from the Old-European tradition, the articles in this volume show how assumptions of stability and the possibility of establishing an outside point from which to move the world physically, rhetorically, epistemologically, philosophically, politically, or scientifically have been on shaky ground since the...